Naomi Osaka sent shockwaves through the sports world when she announced she’d be withdrawing from the French Open for the sake of her mental health. According to her new Netflix documentary series, which premieres on July 16, the announcement was years in the making.
Executive produced by LeBron James, the aptly titled “Naomi Osaka” series follows the four-time Grand Slam winner through two formative years of her life, shedding light on the pressures and anxieties that led to her headline-making break in May.
The doc opens on Osaka’s historic win over Serena Williams at the 2018 U.S. Open. The footage shows the then-20-year-old tearing up with trophy in hand and streamers flying overhead. But a voiceover adds context to those tears.
“No one really knows all the sacrifices that you make, just be good,” Osaka says.
Although she was essentially an overnight sensation, Osaka explained how she’d felt the pressure to perform from a young age. Even before the fancy titles, she saw tennis as a means to support her mother.
“I just remember when I was playing the local tournaments, all I was thinking was like, ‘I want my mom to be happy, I want her to stop working,” she said, recalling how her mom would have to work overtime and sleep in her car at times.
“For me, that was my whole point of playing tennis,” Osaka admitted. “It was honestly either become a champion or probably be broke.”
Osaka described herself as “loving” tennis but being exhausted by the grind, likening her day-to-day practices and press opportunities as “punching in and punching out.” She knows that the internal and external pressures to “be a champion” are toxic, yet she also said that tennis is too wrapped up in her identity to ever stop.
“What am I if I’m not a good tennis player?” she asked rhetorically.
The series shows a number of press conferences in which Osaka is visibly shy and anxious, especially when she must answer for a loss. At one particularly wrought conference, she is asked if she ever gets overwhelmed with underperforming, to which she replied that she must not have that “champion mentality” yet, “which is someone that can deal with not playing 100 percent.”
Osaka is forced to confront her perceived lack of “champion mentality” in episode two when she receives the shocking news that Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter accident. Osaka considered the Lakers great a mentor and kindred spirit.
“When I talked to him, I felt so similar to him. Like the way he would describe how he would do things to get under his opponent’s skin or whatever and I was like, ‘That’s literally what I do.’” she said.
“So, I’m feeling like I’m letting him down. Like, I’m supposed to carry on his mentality in tennis and here I am … like I’m losing matches because I’m mentally weak and that’s so uncharacteristic of him.”
Osaka also revealed that she almost texted Bryant for advice but never hit send.
“We’re having all these talks and I’m not even doing what we’re talking about so I was like, ‘I’m just going to text him again,’ and then I didn’t text him that because I didn’t want to feel like a loser,” she said through sniffles. “Now, I’ll never have a chance to talk with him again. Like wow.”
The docuseries ultimately sees Osaka receiving a semblance of healing through a sweet conversation with her mom at her 22nd birthday dinner and through finding her voice as an activist amidst the George Floyd protests. Neither proved to be what Osaka truly needed though: a break.
On May 26, Osaka announced that she’d be skipping press at the French Open, so as not to “subject myself to people that doubt me.” Four days later, she withdrew from the prestigious tournament. She eventually opted to miss Wimbledon as well.
Osaka’s decisions brought a long-stigmatized topic, athletes’ mental health, to the forefront, gaining (almost) unanimous support. The Calm app even offered to pay her fines and make charitable donations on her behalf.
You can catch Osaka back on the court at the Tokyo Olympics, which kicks off on July 23. In the meantime, “Naomi Osaka” is streaming on Netflix starting on July 16.